The Colorado Mystery Drones Weren’t Real

The mysterious drone sightings that captured national attention were a classic case of mass hysteria.
Empty Sky

On the night of December 30, Sergeant Vince Iovinella of the Morgan County Sheriff's Department in rural Colorado was on patrol when the calls started coming in about drones.

“Residents began calling in reports of drones of unknown origin moving above houses and farms,” Iovinella wrote in a statement obtained by Motherboard via a public records request. “The numbers would range from 4 to 10 drones in an area at a time. Some were reported to be low and at least 6 ft. long.”


Iovinella further reported the drones had white and red flashing lights as he and other deputies made “several attempts” to follow the drones. The drones were moving “very fast at times” but could also “sustain a hover over an area for long periods of time.”

“There were many sighting’s [sic] coming in and at the same time,” Iovinella continued. “It is believed that there could have been up to 30 drones moving around the county if not more and appeared to be working in a search pattern across the county.”

This was yet another night on eastern Colorado’s new drone patrol, following a slate of reports on mysterious fixed-wing drones in the area. They’d come out at night between approximately 7 to 10 p.m. The story, which was first reported by the Denver Post, got international press attention.

Matters kicked into high gear after a medical helicopter reported on January 8 to have flown dangerously close to a drone in the same general area. More than 70 local, state, federal, and military officials jumped into action, convened in a small town called Brush, Colorado, and formed a joint drone task force of 10 to 15 different government agencies to solve the mystery.

“In all of these cases,” Iovinella wrote in this statement, “it is unknown who owns the drone or what their purpose is.”

That’s because the drones never existed.

On January 13, the Colorado Department of Public Safety (CDPS) issued a statement about their investigation into the mysterious drone sightings in question. CDPS “confirmed no incidents involving criminal activity, nor have investigations substantiated reports of suspicious or illegal drone activity.” In other words, they found nothing.


Of the 23 reports between January 6 and January 13 when the investigation was underway, 13 were determined to be “planets, stars, or small hobbyist drones.” Six were commercial aircraft, and four remain unconfirmed. None of the 90 reports from November 23 onward were confirmed instances of illegal drone activity.

The CDPS statement confirms a Motherboard report that was published that same day which suggested the drones were not real.

The night before Sergeant Iovinella was cruising around Morgan County, the Yuma County Sheriff's Office was told by someone, whose name is redacted in the public records documents obtained by Motherboard, who “lives west of the airport here” and saw them by his house. “He figures it had to be dangerously close to interfering with airport air space,” the email says. Nobody floated the possibility it was a plane.

The next day, the Yuma County Sheriff T.C. Combs received an email from a man who wanted to get deputized in order to “form a special task force dedicated to the clandestine monitoring, capturing, and prosecution of those responsible for the recent public panic. My team will be dedicated to the liberation of our skies,” he wrote, and would be known as “Team Alpha WarHawk.” He identified the strengths of each team member, including his own (“comic relief”). His second in command was the “culinary expert” and was “great, but not amazing. However he’s what we got.” The third member of the team specialized in “weapons/Ammunition expert” but was also “just an all around great guy.” One “recruitment pool candidate” makes a “mean pot of coffee” while another is “the most charming man I’ve ever met.” The lone member with a name of Hispanic origin was their “linguistics expert.” It went on like this.


Our sheriff, it seems, is not without a sense of humor:

“I will put your team in the toolbox in case I need it, but just be apprised [sic] that these operations are usually handled as black ops and therefore there is no recognition for your service to the community. You will be regulated [sic] to drinking alone at the fdar end of the bar and not being able to talk about your exploits beyond a knowing glance at your teammates. I will inquire of the Feds (whoever that might be - because it’s a secret) to start the process on your security clearances. Hopefully our allies in the Middle East have let your travel ban from your previous travels rouge incident (the misadventures of youth should be allowed to fade into the murky past at some point) expire and that won’t be an issue. If not you will be restricted to operations only an [sic] United States soil which we all know is highly controversial. I think a good cover story would be windmill repairmen which would allow you move freely throughout the area [sic]. Thanks in advance for your desire to make Yuma County as safe place for its citizens.”

The Colorado non-incident adds yet another instance of drone hysteria to the record books, which has been documented by a white paper published by drone manufacturer DJI and a study by the Academy of Model Aeronautics which found only 27 out of 764 reports of drone sightings by aircraft pilots were legitimate near misses.

“While I can’t conclusively say we have solved the mystery, we have been able to rule out a lot of the activity that was causing concern,” Stan Hilkey, Colorado Department of Public Safety executive director, told the Denver Post even though it sure sounded like they had solved the mystery. “We will continue to remain vigilant and respond as new information comes in.”